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End of an Era

Pádraig Murphy

On May 31st, 1989 in Mainz, Germany, President George HW Bush, foreseeing the collapse of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe, said:

…our responsibility is to look ahead and grasp the promise of the future. I said recently that we were at the end of one era and the beginning of another. And I noted that in regard to the Soviet Union our policy was to move beyond containment … The world has waited long enough. The time is right. Let Europe be whole and free.

Twenty-five years later, the event that inaugurated the new era, the fall of the Berlin Wall, has just been commemorated. Among the eminent guests was Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1989 president of the USSR. He availed of the occasion to warn that tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine had put the world on the brink of a new Cold War.

Just a few weeks later, in the general debate in the Bundestag, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea could in no way be excused. “Russia’s behaviour,” she said, “puts the European peace order in question and breaks international law.”

Russia has been expelled from the G8 and deprived of its voting rights in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, and its institutionalised cooperation with NATO at political level has been suspended. In effect, the era of “Europe whole and free” has ended.

How was this allowed to happen? It results from a combination of insensitive and triumphalistic Western policies towards the Russian Federation, a dysfunctional Ukrainian state, opportunistic Russian policy in regard to the Ukrainian crisis, originating from, but not excused by perceived wilful Western neglect of legitimate Russian interests, and a somewhat naive European policy vis-à-vis Ukraine.

Leonid Kravchuk, the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic, became the independent country’s first president after a referendum on December 1st, 1991. Like many of his counterparts in the newly independent states that had broken with the Soviet Union, he was an apparatchik, who, following the gradual degradation already in the Soviet period of State institutions, continued in independence with the only pattern of administration he knew, that of operating a political machine. It has been characterised as neo-paternalism, and has seriously prejudiced the development of many former Soviet republics, including pre-eminently Ukraine. In the words of Yaroslav Pilinski, a Ukrainian researcher, the total commercialisation of everything began under Kuchma’s (Kravchuk’s successor in 1994) presidency, and the first oligarchs appeared. It became clear that literally everything in the state, including state posts and positions in the security services, were for sale. These included local courts, regional police services, local public procurator offices, tax and customs offices. As a result, anyone with money could infringe with impunity on the rights, property and even the life of Ukrainian. Kuchma, who was a member of the central committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party and a delegate to two congresses of the Communist Party of the USSR, was general director of Yuzhmash in Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, a classic instance of Soviet heavy industry and its intimate symbiosis with the Communist Party.

While Kuchma tried to emulate the Russian pattern in 2004 by nominating his successor, this did not succeed. Rather it resulted in what is called the Orange Revolution, a series of protests on the Maidan Square in Kiev, bringing to power Viktor Yushchenko as president and Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister. For all its revolutionary velleities, however, the period 2005-2009 did not bring any meaningful reforms in Ukraine; it did not result in establishment of effective state institutions or the assurance of legal security for individuals or enterprises. The fact that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko did not work together ‑ rather, they fought bitterly ‑ was one reason. Another was the endless corruption scandals preventing any meaningful political and institutional reform. A third is encapsulated in the nickname given to Tymoshenko, the “gas princess”, indicating her implication in the machinations of the gas industry in the Ukraine in close cooperation with its Russian suppliers. It is not forgotten that, in the latter connection, she signed a controversial gas deal with Vladimir Putin.

Viktor Yanukovich won what was accredited by observers to be a free and fair election to the presidency in 2010. His background, similar to that of Kuchma, though more rackety, was in Donetsk, the heartland of eastern Ukrainian heavy industry. Very soon, Yanukovich’s regime was perceived to be involved in corruption of massive proportions. He and his clan began a systematic subjection to themselves of all the most profitable spheres of economic activity, but also of the forces of order, the tax authorities and the court system. His elder son became after a year one of the five richest men in the Ukraine. The police, the customs authorities and the border service all suffered from the prevalent corruption. So did the army: in March 2014, the acting minister for defence, Igor Tenyukh, explaining why the army had been unable to organise a military counter to the annexation of the Crimea, said to the Verkhovna Rada that, while notionally the Ukrainian armed forces consisted of forty-one thousand men, and formally the numbers in battle-ready units were twenty thousand, in fact the number of men ready for deployment was only six thousand. And this was not all Yanukovich’s doing. For twenty years, the army had been financed on the basis of the residual principle, that is, it was addressed when everything else, including looking after the oligarchs, had been looked after.

It is clear in hindsight that Yanukovich used the negotiations with the EU on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement as a bargaining tool in the manner of a bazaar merchant, leveraging the talks in his tractations with Moscow while simultaneously using the supposed ill consequences of concluding an agreement on economic relations with Russia as leverage with Brussels. In November last year he thought he had achieved an advantageous result from Vladimir Putin and that he might trade on it further with the EU. He announced that he would not be signing the agreement in Vilnius. This was the last straw in particular for those who had set their hopes on an agreement as a way of bringing Ukraine closer to a perhaps somewhat idealised vision of Europe, and on what they expected would be the associated benefits of a cleaned-up polity and economy resulting from the conditionality insisted on by Brussels.

As well as suffering from maladministration, Ukraine is a deeply divided country. It is divided between a west which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and, earlier, of Poland, and an east which had been part of the Russian empire – “Novorossiya” – and the Crimea, which had been a part of Ottoman Turkey and was incorporated into the Russian empire by Catherine the Great in 1783. It is also divided religiously, with the west, no doubt partly in consequence of its historical political allegiance, largely Uniate, in communion with Rome, and the east largely Orthodox, but also divided  between those who recognise a Kiev patriarchate, those who recognise a Moscow patriarchate and those who consider their Orthodox church autonomous. According to a Ukrainian opinion survey, in November 2013 in the western and central regions of the country, 86 per cent were in favour of EU entr, with 14 per cent against, while 61 per cent favoured entry into the Moscow-organised Customs Union and 39 per cent were against. The picture in the east and south was the mirror image of this: 64 per cent favoured EU entry with 36 per cent against, and 81 per cent were in favour of joining the Customs Union with 19 per cent against. It should also be noted that the west is generally oriented to western Europe for historical/cultural reasons and also more recently because of the proximity of Poland, and hence the prospect of freer travel westwards and northwards, the path taken by working emigrants from these regions, is particularly attractive there. For those in the east and south on the other hand, the cutting off of economic links with Russia, threatened in statements by Russian official spokesmen, would mean the unavoidable closure of enterprises, unemployment and the loss of means of existence in a region already poor and dependent on subsidies.

The demography of the original Maidan demonstrators reflected this division. Forty-two per cent were from western Ukraine, twenty-four per cent from the centre and twenty-one  per cent from the east. The demonstrations were at first relatively peaceful, but frustration built up with the delaying tactics of Yanukovich, and the demonstrators, or some of them, became more militant. The focus on the EU also lessened: the demand for conclusion of an association agreement fell from seventy-one per cent in December 2013 to forty-one per cent in February 2014. From the beginning of January 2014, there were ten to twelve thousand fighters on the Maidan, organised in geographical, ideological and ethnic units, including one from the notorious Right Sector, which was behind most of the violent actions. Such militarised units had little to do with the would-be new transparent social and political institutions for which Euromaidan had first demonstrated. Accordingly, representatives of the old political guard became commanders of the staff of national resistance which after the overthrow of Yanukovich took over key positions in the interim administration. This applied to, for instance, Andrei Parubi, who became secretary of the National Security Council, and to Aleksandr Turchinov, who became interim president. Notoriously, one of the first decisions, however short its period of validity, of the Verkhovna Rada after the overthrow was to repeal the law giving Russian the status of an official language, a gratuitous slap in the face for the Russian speakers of the east. The administrative structures of the country remain corrupt and under the control of oligarchs even more than under Yanukovich, the new authorities having designated two oligarchs to look after their interests in Lugansk and Donetsk, where separatists had copied the tactics of the Maidan, occupying public buildings and proclaiming revolutionary change. Igor Kolomoisky, one of the largest entrepreneurs in the Ukraine, became chairman of the Dnepropetrovsk Regional Administration. His junior partner, Igor Palisha, became head of administration in Odessa, and Sergei Taruta, who controls the metal industry in Donetsk, has been designated the head of that oblast. This is not to speak of Petro |Poroshenko himself, one of the most important oligarchs, now elected president of the Republic. He was supported by Dmitro Firtash, co-owner of Rosukrenergo, a Swiss-registered company involved in transporting gas from Turkmenistan to east European countries which is 50 per cent owned by Gazprom. (He is now being held in Austria on an American warrant). The list also includes the former head of the presidential administration of Yanukovich, Sergei Levochkin. The boss of Donetsk, and perhaps the most notorious of the oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, made the mistake of supporting Yulia Tymoshenko. The chief editor of Zerkalo Nedelyi remarked with pain: “At present, the country can survive only because of a union of oligarchs. Renewal of the political system, on which we placed such hopes, has not happened.”

At the time of writing (early December), a month after the general election, a government has been formed, made up of five pro-Western parties which have signed a coalition agreement. The background is what has been described by Vladimir Fesenko of the Penta think tank as “an animal struggle” for territory, with Igor Kolomoisky playing a central role. Arsen Avakov, the interim interior minister, is said to be close to him. Despite a ceasefire agreement in Minsk in September, armed clashes continue between separatists and pro-Ukraine forces in and around Lugansk and Donetsk, with volunteers, including again Right Sector, playing an important part on the Ukrainian side. Twenty-three years after independence, the old Soviet methods of paying for gas still apply – there are no meters: payment is calculated according to the floor area of the accommodation and the number of persons occupying it. Thus, despite quarrels about supply and the price of the supply from Russia going back many years, nothing has been done to rationalise use or minimise wastage. Until recently, there were once again serious preoccupations concerning the possibility of inadequate heating for the winter. Anders Åslund, an economist with much experience of post-Soviet transformation, says the country faces a financial meltdown within the next four months, and most of its banks are collapsing. The draft coalition deal he describes as “a bureaucratic laundry list” that contains no strategy and focuses on no primary goals. “This is not a reform programme but an old-style bureaucratic Soviet document for the preservation of the old system,” he says. “Such a conservative document will never bring reform.” At the same time, the forces of order, which were obedient to Yanukovich, collapsed when he fled, so that police and court services are in a state of disorder.

Vladimir Putin is of course the central figure in Russia’s involvement. He came to office as the designated successor of Boris Yeltsin, who had left the country in a parlous state, thanks principally to his inability, once the CPSU had been demolished, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Gorbachev discredited, to envision a future for Russia with which its people could identify, or even, more basically, in which they could feel that their economic future was assured.

Putin’s conclusion was that it was necessary to focus on gosudarstvennost’, or the principle of a strong state, in order to fill the lacunae left by Yeltsin. This was a reversion to an old Russian paradigm of the state’s role, and its consequences were felt in the takeover of private enterprises in what were seen as strategic sectors, together with a gradual restriction of political representation and the narrowing of the effective power circle. It went also originally with a European vision, not hostile to the EU, but seeing a grand sweep from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

The first significant marker of Russian disenchantment with the post-Cold War configuration came at the Munich conference on security policy in February 2007, where Putin itemised his discontent at what he characterised as “ideological stereotypes, double standards and other aspects of Cold War thinking”. After a long catalogue of grievances – US hegemonism, flouting of the principles of international law, NATO expansion, ABM deployments aimed at Russia, etc. – he concluded “Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy”. The non-EU part of his strategic vision came to be seen as the Eurasian Union, which, with increasing alienation from the West, became an aim in itself, often seen by others as an effort to re-establish a sphere of influence of Soviet proportions. Ukraine played an essential role in this: not only in Putin’s perspective, but also in that of Zbigniew Brzezinski, for instance, the vision could not be realised without Ukraine. There was as well over the past two years an evident progressive disenchantment with the EU on the part of Putin, perhaps the result of a determination that the EU was as intent as the US on restricting the Russian sphere of interest. With this went a pronounced effort to define a separate Eurasian system of values, distinct from the western European. Thus, whereas Putin in 2012 could say that “The Eurasian Union will be built on universal principles of integration as an inseparable part of a Greater Europe, united by the unique values of freedom, democracy and the laws of the market”, one year later, this was no longer the case.

In consequence of the growing ressentiment in regard to the West, probably resulting from increased criticism from that quarter of Putin’s human rights record, and stoked up by the “Eurasian” ideological school (regardless of the ambiguity concerning any formal official endorsement of this school), Putin began to emphasise a significant difference in values between “Eurasia” and the West. As well as this, the practically total disappearance of politics in Russia – engineered by Putin and his supporters – has resulted in a patriotism proclaimed and promoted from on high, which finds expression in xenophobia and anti-Westernism, “Russia for the Russians”, which goes so far as to exclude Muslim Russians from the north Caucasus from the nation. Aleksandr Pukin, the prorector of the diplomatic academy of the Russian foreign ministry, put it as follows earlier this year:

Regardless of the fact that the old ideas of Eurasianism are somewhat artificial, the plan itself of creating a Eurasian Union, based not only on economic interests, but on certain values and cultural principles, separate from those of the West, is not that implausible. The culture and values of many post-Soviet States in fact seriously differ from those of the West. If in the West liberal secularism with its denial of absolute values in all traditional religions, revered as given from above, has assumed an increasingly dominant position, in the post-Soviet space the process of religious renascence and the increase in influence of all foundational religious confessions, Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, is proceeding. Regardless of significant differences, they all reject many of the phenomena of contemporary Western society – the decline of the traditional family, the triumph of radical feminism, the legitimisation of sexual deviance, homosexual marriage, euthanasia, etc., not as phenomena not appropriate for people from some pragmatic point of view, but as “sinful”, that is, unacceptable in themselves, either not sanctioned or directly forbidden from on high.

This, he says, “is a valuable basis for the success of a project for the creation of an independent centre of power in the Eurasian space, which already consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and which Armenia and Kirgizia may join”. The development described by Pukin is an index of the extent of Russian alienation from any feasible vision of a Europe extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok, while it also feeds into ethnic nationalism. This, which was evoked in ringing terms by Putin in his state of the union address at the beginning of December, makes a certain part of Russian opinion comfortable with an imperial project in which they play the role of “elder brother”. The term “nationalist”, once not respectable, is now claimed by personalities as different as Putin and Alexei Navalny, the effective leader of some of the Moscow protests of only a year ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Dmitri Rogozin, who has served as an abrasive Russian ambassador to NATO and is now a deputy prime minister. A flavour of the shape this nationalism can assume is provided by a survey of the five most popular themes among the Russian-language community on the internet, political publications and television programmes in 2012. These were:

A series entitled “Syria the distant frontier of Russia”, followed by “They’re attacking Syria, but Russia is the target”
“On the possibility of a repeat in Russia of the ‘Libyan scenario’”
“The army of Satan is attacking: on the intrigues of the West in Russia” (this by the well-known crackpot Aleksandr Dugin)
“The Spy’s Stone”, a film about cooperation between Russian human rights campaigners and the British secret service.
A series of articles, which ran throughout the year, critical of Russian accession to the WTO.

Thus, along with the “Eurasian” model, the model of the “Russian World”, which draws sustenance from this nationalist theme, is increasingly cited in Moscow as one of the bases of Russian foreign policy. It has echoes of the historical Russian effort described as “the gathering of the Russian lands”, the most important impulse in building the Russian empire from its beginning with Ivan the Great in the fifteenth century. It does not, of course, sit comfortably with the Eurasian idea, given that one of the founder members of the Eurasian Union, Kazakhstan, has a population which is only twenty per cent Russophone, and that this population is concentrated on its northern border with Russia. However that may be, the “Russian World” factor has played and is playing a central role in the Ukrainian crisis. Annexation of the Crimea is justified as a long-awaited reunification of an ethnic Russian population with the motherland, and a droit de regard is being asserted over the population of eastern Ukraine, where a proxy war is being kept in being by means of Russian support for the separatists.

Russia thus, against the background of long-simmering resentment at the West’s disregard of what it perceives to be its legitimate interests, has taken full advantage of the perceived opening in the Ukraine. It does so in full awareness of the fact that the Western side has consistently excluded the use of force as a means of resolution, allowing Moscow to avail of its geographic and economic proximity to use covert military pressure and overt economic pressure on Kiev.

The West is the US on the one hand and the EU, the subject of some contempt by those centrally involved in Washington, on the other. The US has long been perceived in Moscow as having designs on the former Soviet space, and one of the reasons for the change in Putin’s approach exemplified at Munich was the perception that Washington was intent on using NGOs as a cover for regime change in this space. The “colour revolutions” are the prime exhibit here, with the Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2004 one of the most resented. Some plausibility has been given to the Russian case here by the admission of Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs ‑ and curt dismisser of the EU at the height of the Maidan crisis ‑ that the US had spent $5 billion since 1991 in promoting democracy in the Ukraine. The telephone exchange during which she was so dismissive made clear that she and her ambassador were pursuing a very precise agenda as regards personnel in their machinations to influence the succession of Yanukovich in Kiev.

And then there was NATO. According to Gorbachev, depending on when he expressed himself on the question, either the West was rubbing its hands at the extent to which it had succeeded in pulling the wool over Russian eyes on the matter of its enlargement eastwards, or ‑ this in Berlin last month on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall ‑ it had not been discussed at all. The record, when examined, shows that there is no necessary contradiction. What was discussed and agreed, after some Russian hesitation, was that a newly united Germany would have the right to decide its own alliances. Many Western representatives, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher and James Baker, did give assurances that there would be no further extension of NATO. This, of course was in 1990, before the collapse of the USSR The then US president, George HW Bush, faced with the prospect of just this collapse, had determined that the US had an interest in preventing the disintegration of the USSR and had indeed travelled to Kiev to make the point to the Ukrainians that they should be wary of pushing things all the way to independence. For his pains, he earned the title “Chicken Kiev” from Bill Safire. Bill Clinton, sensing a vulnerability, played on the electorates of east European origin in Chicago and Pennsylvania during the election campaign of 1992: if elected, he would be no such chicken. The enlargement of NATO thus came onto the agenda in 1994.

In the European Union, policy towards the former Soviet republics apart from the Baltics was under the general umbrella of what was called the neighbourhood policy. The aim is/was to bind these countries closer to the EU, without holding out the prospect, in any immediate future at any rate, of membership. The agenda in regard to Ukraine was very much driven by Poland and Sweden, in particular, by their foreign ministers at the time, Radoslav Sikorski and Carl Bildt. This agenda was of course set by all twenty-eight member states, but the drive and commitment in respect of Ukraine came from these two. The history of Ukraine, part of which had belonged to Poland historically, and the fact that the population of that part of the Ukraine – its west – looked to Poland as an exemplar of what they might achieve, made the Polish commitment to aligning the Ukraine to the EU particularly neuralgic in Moscow. (Indeed, if historical memory is as long as it in fact is in Russia, Swedish commitment to changing the geopolitical map was also neuralgic, in light of the fact that it was in Poltava, in central Ukraine, that Peter the Great defeated Charles XII of Sweden in 1709 in the course of the latter’s campaign against Russia, which also involved an assault on Russia through Poland.) Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski was also, along with Pat Cox, deputed by the EU during 2012 and 2013 to urge Yanukovich to make the necessary reforms, principally the reform of the judicial system (although the process became excessively identified with the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko) that would enable the association agreement to be signed in Vilnius in November 2014.

One must ask if the EU was fully aware of the geopolitical challenge that it was posing in pursuing its neighbourhood policy. If one were to judge by the evident surprise with which the tragic outcome in Ukraine was met, the answer would seem to be no. Indeed, when asked towards the conclusion of the negotiations if there were not significant geopolitical issues involved, the answer was that for the EU there were none: the EU did not deal in this currency. Its approach was premised on soft power and was directed against nobody. There was an appearance of surprise that anyone could see it otherwise, an apparent blithe unconsciousness, or disregard of the significance of the fact, that Russia might see the question in geopolitical terms ‑ this despite the war in Georgia in 2008, which demonstrated quite clearly that that was the Russian way of seeing developments in its immediate neighbourhood. When one considers how this could be, one has to conclude along with Andrew Wilson that the initiative was left to Poland and Sweden because “too many of the big EU member States had been preoccupied with their own problems”. “UK Prime Minister David Cameron,” he says, “was at the Vilnius summit in 2013 to negotiate with Chancellor Merkel, but that was about keeping out one lot of Eastern Europeans (Bulgarians and Romanians), rather than inviting another lot in (Ukrainians).” France under François Hollande is more preoccupied with demonstrative use of military force to solve foreign policy problems, and in this case it was from the start the consensus that there was no military solution. Apart from that, there was the question of the three Mistral class amphibious assault ships sold to Russia and awaiting final delivery at Saint-Nazaire. That left Germany and, pace Wilson, there was no absence of engagement on this problem in Berlin. One could question the wisdom of some aspects of this engagement under Guido Westerwelle as foreign minister – there was his appearance among the demonstrators on the Maidan in December, for instance, a symbolic act also engaged in by John McCain, and, as her apparently only substantial engagement with the issue, Catherine Ashton – but Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier have surely given the question more time and attention than all other Western representatives put together, possibly excepting the Swiss foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, in his capacity as the chairman in office of the OSCE for 2014. As it happens, geopolitics is also a notion that does not figure in the toolbox of the Federal Republic of Germany. This is for very understandable historical reasons, and the new Germany has done very well in the world so far without it. The German way since 1949 has been the use of soft power. Up to reunification, it was the deployment of very significant financial resources in pursuit of foreign policy objectives, principally the furtherance of European integration, but also the advancement of national unification. Since 1991, Germany has used its considerable and growing economic clout to pursue its foreign policy objectives, principally economic ones, in Russia, Central Asia and China. Significantly, and to a growing extent since the beginning of 2014, when the federal president, the foreign minister and the defence minister all called at Munich for a reconsideration of what has been seen as an unduly shackled foreign policy, there is an important debate going on on what the country’s foreign/security policy profile should be, and a public consultation on the matter is being pursued nationwide.

Henry Kissinger is perhaps nobody’s idea of a proponent of principles-based foreign policy. Rather is he known as a practitioner as an exponent of realpolitik going as far as cynicism. In his old age, however, he has published recently a book, called ‑  what else? ‑ World Order. It contains the following interesting consideration:

Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.

Put rather crudely, “soft power” is not sufficient; it needs the backbone of an effective concern for equilibrium if the coherence of the international order itself is not to be endangered. It would be too easy to say that a German deficiency is responsible for the European peace order being put in question, to use Chancellor Merkel’s formula – Germany was, after all, more assiduous than any other European nation in trying to prevent this outcome. But it is unfortunately the case that the European system as a whole, indeed the Western system, has failed to prevent it. The grand objective of a common foreign and security policy for the EU was shown to lack purchase and the mediators were seen to be some of the member states, not even including the presidency, and finally only Germany.

What now? Vladimir Putin has just, in his state of the nation report in the Kremlin Great Palace, presented the annexation of the Crimea as the fulfilment of a historical necessity, the significance of the Russian connection to the Crimea being as sacred as is the Temple Mount’s connection to Judaism and Islam. For all that, it is inescapably what Chancellor Merkel described, an infringement of the European peace order, to which the Soviet Union already committed itself in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. The commitment to non-violability of frontiers was repeated by Russia in the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed in Paris in 1997, as well as specifically in relation to Ukraine in a joint US-UK-Russian statement of 1994 on the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, and in a joint US-Russian statement of 2009 on the expiration of the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. It cannot therefore be accepted and asseverations of sacredness are neither here nor there in view of what is at stake. Neither can the covert aggression in eastern Ukraine, which surely qualifies as the threat of force, which was also renounced by the USSR/Russia in the founding acts of the European peace order.

The use of counter-force having been excluded, the instrumentarium is confined to sanctions. These are measures for the long haul, but Russia too will have to think about where its future lies. Putin himself said in his December speech in the Kremlin that Russia did not want to go down the road of isolation; it wanted good relations with both the US and the EU. At the same time, he was insistent that sanctions would not deflect Russia; rather, he painted them as an opportunity for Russia to become more efficient and more self-sufficient. Whether the country can achieve efficiency and self-sufficiency to this extent must, in the light of experience since 1991, be considered doubtful. It is not so long ago that the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was calling Europe, the United States and Russia “the three pillars and three branches of European civilisation”. Not so long ago either one of Putin’s main advisers, his eminence grise Vladislav Surkov, said that “an essential element in the construction of Russia” was “not to fall out of Europe and to hold firmly to the West”. Those who think that Putin has managed a coup with his gas deal for $400 billion over thirty years during his visit to China in May need to consider firstly how Russian development is served by continuing the pattern of trade in primary products by delivering gas to China; secondly, how tying itself to China, a much more developed economy and a much larger one, will prevent it becoming a subordinate entity to a resurgent Middle Kingdom. As Dmitri Trenin puts it, the Eurasian union may become an add-on to, or even an extension of, China’s Silk Road project” in circumstances where China will have become “de facto hegemon in Eastern, Northern and Central Asia”. The sanctions imposed by the West have already led to a liquidity crisis in the Russian banking system, a precipitate fall in the value of the rouble and a significant rise in inflation. There is talk in Moscow of using the Shanghai market to ease the scarcity of short-term bank liquidity. It may be doubted that China can fill that gap, or that it can fill the technology gap which needs to be filled if Russia is to develop its economy further than primary products, essentially hydrocarbons, or even with the latter, where exploitation of new sources will become more and more technology- and finance-intensive.

In sum, at the end of an era, the relations of Russia with the West, indeed, its place in the world, have become problematic. The outcome of the stand-off – for that is what it is given the impossibility of a military solution and apparent Russian intransigence – is still open. This is taking place at a time when the world order as a whole is mutating. The US is no longer, if indeed it ever was, the nation that sees further because it stands taller, as invoked by Madeleine Albright. China has taken on a new predominance in its region, and its influence, to put it no higher, in the western Pacific and in central Asia is growing. As we have seen, its growing influence in the latter area shines a new light on what a Eurasian Union might look like. India and some other developing countries – Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia – may succeed in joining the world’s economic/political elite. For no other body will the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis prove more decisive than the European Union. For, if Ukraine is seen in Moscow as part of its area of influence, it is no less, at the eastern edge of a putative Europe, an area of profound interest to a developing EU. The regime of sanctions put in place by Brussels, combined with those imposed by Washington after the take-over of Crimea, is having effects in Russia. The rouble has been falling on the exchanges, inflation is rising, there is a shortage of liquidity, there are problems with the food supply. But the sanctions scenario is a very slow-moving one and there are bound to be questions as to whether all the EU’s member States will stay on board for the necessary time. For Washington, this consideration is much less problematic, the US having relatively unimportant economic relations with Russia. But Hungary under Viktor Orbán, for instance, is open in proclaiming its sympathy for the Russian move on Crimea, and some other central and east European countries are less than enthusiastic about punishing Russia. Some member states – Bulgaria, Italy, Austria ‑ will suffer negative economic consequences and it is possible that Putin’s abrupt cancellation of South Stream was aimed at maximising these. Further, some newly prominent populist parties, chief among them the French National Front, are open in their expression of sympathy for Russia in the circumstances. Even in Germany, there are those like Matthias Platzeck, former Ministerpräsident of Brandenburg, and chairman of the SPD party in 2005-6, who have advocated recognition of Russian incorporation of Crimea. Apart from all these complications in the EU picture, the state of development of the common foreign and security policy does not give grounds for any particular optimism. While, as mentioned, France has pursued its own priorities, mostly by military means, in north Africa and Syria, the UK has become a semi-detached member of the union. Others have had other priorities, and Germany, while consistently engaged, could hardly have been said to have done so in the name of the EU. The High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, perhaps because of this configuration among the member states, was scarcely visible during the crisis, except for one unfortunate appearance on the Maidan in December. The EU will either draw the appropriate lessons from the crisis, including the lesson that geopolitics is still a factor for those who wish to engage in foreign and security policy, or admit that, at the beginning of a new era, the EU will appear en ordre dispersé.

I am greatly indebted to the Carnegie Moscow Centre for their Pro et Contra, January-April 2014 and May-August 2014 – unfortunately, the last issues of this periodical – and to the comment by its director, Dmitri Trenin, in July 2014, entitled “The Ukraine Crisis and the Resumption of Great-Power Rivalry”.

Other reading
Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014
Peter Strutynski (ed), Ein Spiel mit dem Feuer, Köln, PapyRossa Verlag, 2014

9/12/2014

Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.

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